Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
September 25, 2013
It's the season for round numbers here in Los Angeles. The one you surely know about is the 10th anniversary of the Walt Disney Concert Hall the LA Philharmonic has been promoting. But there’s a more important big anniversary downtown. That one is a 50th and it’s the number of seasons now being celebrated by the Los Angeles Master Chorale now under Music Director Grant Gershon. On Sunday the chorale kicked off their big season with a mega show. A nostalgic look back on the first fifty years of the ensemble through the musical eyes of its four former and current music directors. A hodge-podge of pieces by dozens of composers was presented to provide an overview of the musical interests and temperments that have helped shape the group's repertory. And while it may not have always been the most cohesive performance musically with such a scope, the show did provide a great sense of the LAMC’s history and direction and had a lot to say about where the group is right now.
It’s worth remembering that at its inception, the LAMC was an oddity – a resident performing chorale ensemble in a major Americna arts organization that not only collaborated with the local orchestra, but also provided a season of independent chorale performances. Founding Music Director Roger Wagner managed to put choral music front and center in the genesis of LA's Music Center giving it a place in the city's largest arts organization unrivaled elsewhere in the U.S. His vision paid off grandly and much of Sunday's anniversary program focused on the cornerstone pieces that made the company's reputation in the first two decades under his leadership. The evening moved on revisiting the Scottish works and influences that were a hallmark under John Currie's tenure with the organization complete with bagpipes and drums. Some of the strongest musical moments followed a long break when the chorale performed pieces from favorite composers of former Music Director Paul Salamunovich. Associate Conductor Lesley Leighton led works of Maruice Durufle and Gershon presented Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium. It is precisely these sorts of performances that established the chorale's international reputation in the 90s and they continue to be a high water mark in the artistic life of the company.
But all of these works still had a rough hewn quality in their performance Sunday. There was a disjointed feeling to this large and diverse program until the audience and the many vocal artists of the chorale turned the corner and dove into the last decade or so of the organiztions history. These, of course, are the years under current Music Director Grant Gershon. And if there was any lesson to be taken away from this anniversary concert Sunday it was that while the history of the LAMC is indeed formidable, today, this chorale is musically Grant Gershon's in its very heart and soul. The emphasis on newer music and on an increasingly diverse world of chorale music traditions has been a hallmark of this last decade. And Gershon has shaped an ensemble that thrives on the unexpected. Reeling from Nyowon Woo's ME-NA-RI to fragments from Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil to Ellington's setting of The Lord's Prayer and finally to Gaspar Fernandes' Dame albricia mano Anton, the chorale sounded seemless and natural. The warmth and energy the chorale projected in such rapidly shifting and diverse settings was astounding. In fact the vocalists seemed to thrive on it. Almost as if to say "now watch me" the chorale swelled with its own light and a sense of power. Everything clicked suddenly and the evening climzxed with a performance of Randall Thompson's Alleluia which provided an opportunity for the chorlae memebers to be joined by the many LAMC alumni present who joined the current members on stage. It was an exciting moment and one that was undoubtedly special for everyone involved. And it was a brillinat start to a season that encapsulates everything this single evening was trying to achieve with performances of the Carmina Burana and Bach's B Minor Mass to work from Lauridsen, Recih, Lang and Salonen. Gershon and his LA Master Chorale aren't about to forget where they've been. But don't think for a second that they are about to take a rest.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale wrapped up its 49th season on Sunday with a program of American works. And while eyes were increasingly focused on the 50th anniversary season that lies just a few months ahead, this closing performance captured the Chorale at the height of their powers. It was a show that took a broad swipe at an immensely large body of choral music and it captured much spirit and artistry of the group where they are right now in time under the musical direction of Grant Gershon. All of the works on the program outside of four traditional spirituals that closed the evening were from the 20th Century. And while that designation sends some music fans running, there was little discordant modernism to be found here. The evening opened with Samuel Barber’s Sure on This Shining Night which set the tone with majesty and beautiful sound. Barber’s choral setting of his own Adagio for Strings, Agnues Dei also surfaced on the program. There was an early work from Elliott Carter and a puckish work from the iconoclastic Charles Ives, General William Booth Enters Into Heaven. Accompanied only by piano, The chorale showed off its way with difficult scores here to exciting effect.
But there was plenty of contemporary music on the bill as well. And while some of it was not the most intellectually challenging material, it did highlight the chorale’s interest in new commissions and advocating living artists. There were Three Songs of Faith from Eric Whitacre that came off as somewhat maudlin. Perhaps more notable though was the world premiere Plath Songs, a new cycle from the LAMC’s own composer-in-residence and member, Shawn Kirchner. Kirchner is well known for his arrangements that have been performed by the chorale, but in his recently adopted role of composer-in-residence he is flexing his artistic muscles in new ways. These settings of Sylvia Plath’s poems benefit from superb texts. Kirchenr’s music can actively avoid the darker streaks in these six poems that were heard on Sunday. However, the works are well orchestrated for the chorus and Kirchner has an excellent feel for writing for a vocal ensemble of this size. It’s a collaboration worth continued watching.
The evening closed with four more off-the-beaten-path spirituals including “Hold On!”, “Keep Your Lamps!”, and “The Battle of Jericho.” This material can be touch and go with some ensembles although it is a huge part of the American choral tradition. These numbers were well done and enthusiastically received by the audience to a greater extent than anything else all evening. This eclectic mix of new and older music and programming that hits a wide variety of buttons is part of what makes the LAMC so great and this closing season certainly promises a lot to celebrate in the 50th anniversary year starting this fall.
Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic wrapped up two weeks worth of concerts this weekend at Disney Concert Hall – shows they’ll soon take on the road to Lincoln Center in New York later this month. The shows were an encapsulation of all the things that are working, and most certainly those that aren’t, with today’s LA Phil. And they come on the heels of the orchestra’s announcement of its 2013/2014 season, the eleventh in the Walt Disney Concert Hall which will celebrate its 10th Anniversary in October and has rapidly set the standard for musical venues in the U.S. if not around the world.
The good news is that the LA Phil has maintained its commitment to contemporary music through a robust and active commissioning program and aggressive programming of a variety of 20th and 21st century sounds. This season and next suggest that the orchestra may be developing a stronger taste for young Americans than European modernists in the targets of their commissioning dollars, ruffling some feathers about the seriousness of it all, but this is really splitting hairs for the most part. Dudamel continues to seem like an ancillary figure in this part of the organization’s programming. He’s by no means absent from it, but his heart is more readily on display elsewhere with the tried and true such as Mahler and next year’s Tchaikovsky cycle, which will again feature contributions from the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. (“I love Tchaikovsky music like crazy’” says the maestro during the press conference announcing the season.) And while he won’t be on the podium for the LA Phil’s performance of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, which will mark the exact 10th Anniversary of the opening of WDCH, this past weekend he again helmed perhaps the biggest premiere of the orchestra’s tenure since the departure of former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary.
Mary premiered in a concert version in the spring of 2012 to a surprised and somewhat bewildered audience. Another opera-cum-oratorio riffing on cornerstone genres of the Western Musical tradition, Mary was bigger than anticipated and much different from what one might expect from Adams, suggesting a new direction in his career and musical production. The sound was thornier, more dissonant, diffuse and far less eager to please. It built on the burgeoning fractured narratives in Adams’ larger vocal works developed alongside director Peter Sellars filling the Passion story with the struggle of mid-Century California farm workers and the incarcerated. Texts and language shift through a myriad of sources constructing a narrative that relies on the audience’s familiarity with the story in order to re-tell the tale.
This weekend, the LA Phil presented the work again with the same soloists from last year, Kelley O’Connor as the eponymous Mary, Tamara Mumford as her sister Martha, Russell Thomas as Lazarus and others, and a mini-chorus of countertenors – Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley. The forces here are similar to those in El Nino but the music is markedly different relying less on percolating structures that repeat and blossom into grand gestures. Mary is still startling for what it is not and this time seemed more concentrated and directed in its goals. When Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener at the conclusion, it is both simultaneously heartbreaking and wonderful. It’s undoubtedly a landmark in the career of one of America’s most important living composers. If there was anything that wasn’t fresh and new in the performance, it was Sellars’ overly familiar semi-staging of events that took place at the foot of the stage. The vocalists were joined by three dancers who sometimes acted as doppelgangers and at others represented characters in their own right. Sellars is eager to draw connections between the characters and contemporary people, dressing everyone in various shades of faux denim and giving the chorus, in street clothes, a wee bit of their own choreography, adding to the shenanigans occurring in front of them. This is all highly familiar stuff from Sellars a this point in the game, particularly alongside his work with Adams, and tended to undercut the surprising innovation elsewhere in the performance.
But while the LA Phil showed off its newer music chops this weekend, the other program on their upcoming out-of-town bill was a far more mixed affair with several soft spots. The highlight of the prior weekend was a performance of Stravinsky’s complete music for The Firebird. This, of course, is the kind of thing Dudamel revels in, with lots of places for big, overstated gestures both in terms of noisy flourish and histrionic pacing. The slower sections dragged, but there was an unmistakably satisfying big finish to drive things home. Even if the finale felt disconnected from what preceded it, Dudamel managed to leave the audience believing they’d heard something, certainly with all the flash and fire. But pull out the show-stoppers and he continues to struggle under the weight of over-processed and mannered musicality. Debussy’s La mer, which closed the first half of the first program, was nothing short of a mess. Splashing about here and there left the musicians drowning in this rocky sea, and an overall lack of line and connection between component parts made the performance hollow and empty. Vivier’s Zipangu opened the first evening with its eerie overtones meant to evoke the Japanese music the title alludes to in 15 minutes of shifting colors. The piece felt dead in Dudamel’s hands less colorful and more disjointed and academic. Like the Debussy the overall picture and feel of the work was lost in a series of overworked and disconnected moments. Of course, all of this may sound more worked out when the orchestra hits the road, but it still suggests that despite the many great things about the LA Phil under Dudamel, few of them stem from his own musicality.
Fresh from seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s visually-stunning new production of Wagner’s Parsifal, I decided to check out the company’s other big new production currently on stage, Verdi’s Rigoletto directed by one of Broadway’s current favorites Michael Mayer. As you might expect, eye-popping visuals are again at the hear of what makes Mayer’s Rigoletto tick. But while François Girard’s Parsifal is somber and reaches for mystery, this Rigoletto is bright, aggressive, and never lets you forget where your at even for one neon-drenched second. Which I suppose is to be expected in that Mayer updates the opera’s action to a 1960’s Las Vegas casino where Rigoletto now serves as a comedic performer in the establishment run by the lounge-lizard of a Duke. The court here is composed of Mayer’s own version of the Rat Pack. This all works well in a set built with wall to wall neon that can both offend and amaze especially when it bursts from a dark neon blue to a brilliant flashing white during Act III’s thunderstorm.
Garish it may be, but it is also appropriate. A royal palace from 16th Century Mantua may rarely look it on contemporary opera stages, but garish isn’t far off the mark relative to its own time. And the sort of hollow-souled menace legendary in Vegas of the 60s fits right in with the Duke’s court. So what’s not to love? Well with all the glitz and dark undertones, there was remarkable little tension in the performance of the opera on Saturday which was broadcast to theaters around the world as part of the Met Opera’s Live in HD series. And it may have been the pressure of those cameras and lights that led to some less than top drawer performances from the otherwise stellar cast in the show. Diana Damrau sang Gilda and while she provided plenty of bright, agile sound, she seemed somewhat reserved as if holding back a bit. Piotr Beczala was the Duke and he exhibited fun high spirits wrapping up his “La donna è mobile” with a spin on a stripper pole featured prominently in Act III. (The stripper had long since left the stage at the beginning of the act after some clear uncertainty of response to her bare breasts from the audience.) But Beczala for all his good humor strained a bit at times in this off afternoon despite his believability overall.
Željko Lucic has no substantial competition when it comes to the title role which he has sung just about everywhere, and his nebbishy Vegas comic still managed all the broken heart he’s famous for delivering. His scenes with Damrau's Gilda were a highlight of the whole show. Michele Mariotti led the orchestra with brio and certainty. This is a solid and enjoyable staging overall, and given the very patchy results of the Met's home-grown new productions in recent seasons, it must be chalked up as a success. Not hat it is going to make everyone happy. But it is fun to watch, always interesting to look at and does something with the material that does delve into the interpretive if in a very tentative fashion that so many of the recent premieres haven't.
If you want to know what keeping up appearances means in the world of opera, New York City Opera is serving up a prime example right now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of its many recent homes away from homelessness since leaving Lincoln Center. You’d never guess the troubles that have plagued this company in recent seasons by the look of the opening production of their 2013 season, a new staging of Thomas Adés’ Powder Her Face. Rapidly approaching its 20th anniversary, Adés’ chamber opera has proven to have remarkable legs and this time around those legs have some amazing bulging calves and meaty thighs. Not to mention all the bubble butts, washboard abs and impressive male genitalia on display in Jay Scheib’s sharp, fever-dream staging of Britain’s Duchess of Argyll affair. The Duchess, sung by an assured Allison Cook, finds herself unraveling in impoverished anonymity at the opening of the piece, and her recollection of how she got there is presented as a half-remembered hallucination with clever augmentations of events in the libretto. The Duchess and her maid, the equally captivating Nili Riemer, go on a cocaine binge in the bathroom of the Duchess’ hotel suite at one point, and the line between the suite’s interiors and the outside of some imaginary forest blend and shift constantly throughout the show. And then there are those two-dozen completely nude male lovers that wander into the penultimate scene of Act I to lounge, do head stands, handle fruit, and read newspapers as the oblivious Duchess goes about seducing the hotel’s waiter, a part sung with clear even tone by William Ferguson.
Ferguson is a good sport here, appearing in the all-together, as well, at moments and making the most of frisky undressing and groping with another waiter, Jon Morris, in one of two non-singing servant roles in this staging. The intention, of course, is to demonstrate how the once scandalous sexual behavior of the Duchess has become commonplace in the contemporary world that has forgotten all about her late in her life. The staging also makes much of live video projected onto the large blank moving walls of the set, allowing the audience to see action in multiple rooms onstage simultaneously while providing juxtapositions of scenes that are simultaneously taking place in contrasting exposed or enclosed settings. It all works splendidly and does great service to Adés score, which is lightly peppered with references to popular 20th Century musical genres. Instead of treating the work as some period piece or survey of the recent past, Scheib and his team deliver something that feels like it is happening in the moment in a slightly crazed, intensely psychological way. Adés’ score likewise sounds urgent and all of one piece as opposed to some musical pastiche. Of course, one of the reasons Powder Her Face continues to be so attractive is the relative economy of the forces involved. But conductor Jonathan Stockhammer manages to elicit much bigger sound than one might expect from the size of the chamber ensemble in the pit.
Of course, whether or not this kind of work will be the kind of thing that brings New York City Opera back to a bigger existence in a more permanent home remains to be seen. But even not, the artistic values on display suggest the company has plenty more to say, and one hopes they continue to find the fortunes to do so. Powder Her Face continues for two more performances at BAM this week.
The Metropolitan Opera continued its campaign to be the world’s preeminent company in the world of retail artistic values this weekend with the opening of another new-to-you production, Wagner’s Parsifal. And as with many imported co-productions new to this New York stage in recent years, it’s far more successful than the homegrown fare the company has produced recently and it is certainly the best “new” production yet this season. That’s not to say it’s a great one – it just stands out a bit in a field of generally weak competition. François Girard’s impressionistic, painterly modern-dress affair, first seen at the Opéra National de Lyon, does tap into the ceremonial aspects of the libretto, making the work bracingly modern at times. And the show is rife with a sometimes obtuse visual symbolism that is intriguing to ponder. But the many striking stage pictures are just as likely to evoke as much high art female anatomy as one generally experiences on a visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Yes, we get it. Parsifal has mother issues. Flower maidens dancing in a shallow pool of blood staining their white shift dresses and Pantene-treated hair may look good, but subtle it ain’t. Yet, the stage images are bewitching ones nevertheless. The rolling hills that rise and fall in the giant video projections in Act I are clearly the curves of a human body. The cleft in the rolling meadows of the set bleeds under a subtle change of David Finn’s lighting. Finn deserves special recognition here for perhaps the most striking lighting I’ve seen on a stage in quite a long time. His stage painting often outshines the stunning imagery of Peter Flaherty’s constantly evolving video designs.
Some of my favorite images come from Act I when the Knights of the Grail carry out their ceremony dressed in slacks and white dress shirts. Seated in a double tight circle, the male chorus sways about in an affecting way that reinforces why Parsifal might feel like an outsider. The audience does as well, and for a moment one might feel like they’ve accepted that invitation to an after-work prayer meeting from that awfully nice but to-be-avoided creepy guy at the office. That image might actually be a good analogy for the show as a whole. Despite good, and sometimes lofty intentions, and despite this lovely visual sensibility, the show often stalls out with little warning and some of the principals can be given woefully little to do at key moments. In an opera that is about ritual and the slow passing of time, that can be deadly very quickly and there are many moments here that could be tighter or more fleshed out.
But of course the Met has brought musical resources to bear on this staging that are really without comparison on the contemporary scene. Simply put, Peter Mattei’s Amfortas is perfection. René Pape’s Gurnemanz is better known, but no less captivating. Even Katarina Dalayman, a sometimes bewildering Met favorite as Brünnhilde, gives an engaged if somewhat overwrought Kundry that is solid throughout with no shrill sound or shrieking. And at the center of it all is the show’s star and big ticket seller, Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. He certainly delivers, and his baritonal tenor works better here than say in his much-lauded turns as Lohengrin. But even Kaufmann can't quite seem to execute the challenge of portraying a character who goes from puzzled to pious over the course of five hours. It may be an interesting and true-to-life human experience, but it’s a much harder transition to sell on stage than say falling in love or plotting murderous vengeance. Kaufmann’s Parsifal, despite his nuanced, energetic, and warm vocal performance, is just as likely to be removed and aloof until the final scene. He does spend a good half-hour or more of the show shirtless, however, so the production is bound to please a significant portion of the opera audience I’d wager regardless.
The Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus were on fire, by the way. They sounded better tonight than they have perhaps all season and Daniele Gatti delivered a dynamic, polished and nuanced interpretation of the score that wont help jog anyone’s mind about the announced return of Music Director James Levine to the company next season. Gatti can be brutally forceful in some contexts, but not here. The feel of ritual and the promise of salvation were in every note of this performance. That really is reason enough to see the show with an unsurpassed vocal cast. And the Met’s new Parsifal is awfully easy on the eyes, even if it isn’t necessarily going to convince you to see the light.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale kicked off the Spring leg of their season with a beautiful reflective program this weekend pairing two large orchestral works for chorus and soloists – Peter Lieberson’s The World in Flower and Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem. Both works focus on redemption in the face of death and provided an opportunity for the chorus to shine. That’s not unusual; they and their Music Director Grant Gershon are always great. But sometimes the chorus doesn’t quite get the starring role it deserves, especially when placed as the backdrop of so many other simultaneous musical forces. Brahms’ Requiem is a familiar staple. It's easy to hear it performed by any number of the worlds’ great orchestras often with the most rarified of conductors and soloists. But sometimes the choral contribution to such performances can be left wanting by comparison. Take Daniel Harding’s 2010 performance with the Dresden Staatskapelle in New York with Matthias Goerne and Christiane Karg. Beautifully played and sung, the work sounded somewhat flat and uninvolved, and the chorus while admirable was a ramshackle amalgam of various local choral groups. The work fared little better with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2011 under Gustavo Dudamel. Again Goerne was joined by Christine Schäfer and the LAMC, but the whole affair collapsed under Dudamel’s typically ponderous, excessive conducting penchants. The LAMC performances this weekend with the assembled orchestra under Grant Gershon couldn’t have been farther from either such previous outings. Here the chorus was given pride of place and room to shine without the intrusive overworked contributions from previous conductors. With the focus shifted, the Requiem came alive underscoring Brahms’ humanistic approach to the mass. Suddenly this was a requiem for and by the people, and that community spirit shone through for a stirring and often quite touching hour.
Of course, the fine work of the soloists Hayden Eberhart and Brian Mulligan also helped make the evening such a success. Mulligan has repeatedly given remarkably strong and earnest performances on so many stages this year that his international super star status seems all but a certainty now. He was no less impressive here, muscular and warm with a note of heartbreak deep inside, he gave another stirring vocal performance here. Mulligan was also one of the soloists for Lieberson’s The World in Flower alongside mezzo and Los Angeles favorite Kelley O’Connor. Neither vocalist is a stranger to contemporary music (O’Connor will tour with the LAMC and the LA Philharmonic this spring to take John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary around the world) and their experience paid off here. The song cycle, which features settings of poems by a variety of authors including Rilke, Hopkins, Whitman, and Neruda, was put together for Lieberson’s wife who sadly died before the work’s completion and premiere. Lieberson himself had completed a round of chemotherapy for his own cancer prior to orchestrating the work and the spiritual life-affirming elements of the piece hit very hard. O’Connor and Mulligan soared above the exquisite choral writing for a remarkable opening to the concert. Lieberson used a more constrained sound palette for The World in Flower in contrast to several other of his late works (his percussion concerto, Shing Kham will receive its world premiere by the LA Philharmonic next season) but the even-handed tone fits well amid such charged material overall. It was a beautiful start to the year from the LAMC. One that brings hopefully as much joyful artistry as they offered up this weekend.
Friday brought the latest frustration in what has been one of the most unexpectedly disappointing Los Angeles Philharmonic seasons in recent memory. Great nights with the LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall have been few and far between lately, and Friday’s program under Pablo Heras-Casado featuring the works of 20th-century Hungarian Composers was one of the biggest let-downs yet. The centerpiece of the evening was the world premiere of a new commission from Peter Eötvös, a violin concerto entitled DoReMi written for Midori. Eötvös has been featured around town all week and his appearances here were some of the most anticipated of the year. And yet not unlike Tuesday’s concert staging of his Angels in America, DoReMi fell far short of its promise. The single movement work does capture a playful spirit as suggested in the title – one concerned with the basic building blocks of music composition. Eötvös is taking a wry wink at the relationship between these most elemental of tones. This playfulness is also reflected in the way other members of the orchestra often share or swap the solo material in various asides or outright duos passed to and between the ostensible soloist Midori and the Concertmaster or even the Principal Violist. At first I wondered if Midori, not a name that leaps to mind when thinking of contemporary music, was picked at random for this project through some new violin concerto generation software. But her virtuosity is never to be taken lightly and she flew into one thorny discordant passage after the next. She clearly dug in with wild swings bouncing to and fro off the other orchestral elements.
Yet oddly, all of this playfulness never amounted to much joy. The piece came off mechanical and frequently muddy. There was a homogeneity to it all as well that left one wanting for a bit more development or direction. Of course, part of the problem here may rest in the hands of Heras-Casado. Despite some exemplary outings with the L.A. Phil in the past, his assails of Kodály’s Háry János Suite and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra were wanting. There were moments of lush sound, but an edge was missing in both. No hint of folk or ethnic influences here. Instead both works wandered without focus or much direction with the same muddy sound-constrained dynamic range. What should have been a barn-burner was instead reduced to a little night music. And for the lions of 20th-century Hungarian music, that is not enough. Not by a long shot.
This is great. One of Salonen's last gifts to the Los Angeles Philharmonic during his tenure as music director, this Violin Concerto (played here by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra) is probably the most important example of the genre since John Adams'. (Unsuk Chin's is another contender for this title to be sure.) The soloist is Leila Josefowicz for whom the worked was composed and she gives an athletic, enthralling performance in this clear, well-balance DG recording. The concerto is paired with Salonen's Nyx which is also receiving its premiere recording.
This Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast a live performance (in HD as we are incessantly reminded) of the company’s new production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda across the world. I saw the production on New Year’s Eve and although there is not a single surprising thing about it, you should go see it. The primary reason is because of the biggest non-surprise in the show – the incomparable vocal artistry of American mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role. She sang the role spectacularly in Houston earlier this year to great acclaim and she is no less successful here. She is nothing short of radioactive in this performance. Her vocal lines are so beautifully shaped and cared for, her inner reserve as the imprisoned queen so heart stopping, it will leave you stunned. Her opening scene, the second part of Act I, may be one of the best things I saw on any opera stage all last year. DiDonato has taken the mantle as one of opera’s true international super stars in recent years, and here she delivers with a title role deserving of her superb artistry.
Of course a world-class performance from DiDonato is no surprise. Sadly given the artistic fortunes of today’s Met, most of the off kilter underwhelming elements of the production otherwise should also come as no shocker. David McVicar’s by-the-numbers staging has all the dramatic tug of a Macy’s window display. It’s dark and lovely but slavishly follows the house imperative against interpretation or analysis. All of that is fine and well, but what McVicar does to the poor soprano Elza van den Heever is nearly unforgivable. She takes on the other meaty role in the opera, Elizabeth I of England, and musically you could ask for little more from her. San Francisco audiences were lucky enough to hear many of such performances during her time there, and her Met debut is a notable one. Except for the cartoon villain mannerisms McVicar foists on her character, like trying to snap a riding crop in two as a sign of anger, for example, in one of the opera’s several unintentionally laugh out loud moments. This is not good theater – plain and simple.
The Met orchestra sounded lovely if under-rehearsed on opening night under maestro Maurizio Benini. Hopefully things will have settled down in time for the broadcast on Saturday, but on New Year’s Eve the sound was sluggish and wandering at times. Matthew Polenzani is also on stage as Leicester, but, thanks to Donizetti, blink and you’ll miss him. In the end this is Donizetti’s version of Schiller’s play, and the dueling queens, who never actually met in real life, are still the centerpieces. And the Met has recruited two formidable women in these roles making this very predictable new production worth seeing despite its many failures.
So, after being on hiatus, how do I get started again? I say just jump right back in.
Opera composers have long relied on stage plays as a source of dramatic material. It seems a natural choice: take something stage worthy to begin with and set it to music. What could possible go wrong? On occasion composers have even taken the text of a play as a libretto in and of itself, though more often than not they use an adapted version of a text for their own music dramas. It’s as true now as ever, and a recent visit to Los Angeles by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös reminded us that these stage-to-stage endeavors are rarely as uncomplicated as they might seem. On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group under its “Green Umbrella” series gave the local premiere of Eötvös’ version of Angels in America, the landmark multiple award winning two-part drama from Tony Kushner. The opera received its world premiere in Paris in 2004 and has been seen in several different venues both in America and abroad. It has undergone many changes and re-orchestrations over the last decade from a small predominantly electronic instrument-based ensemble to the larger chamber orchestra-sized one that appeared in Los Angeles this week as part of a series of events Eötvös is participating in here this week.
In some ways this is asking for trouble. Angels in America is a play a lot of art loving folks here hold near and dear to their hearts, particularly here in Los Angeles where the play first stumbled forth onto the stage of the Mark Taper Forum. Gay men of a certain age view Kushner’s play as their play in a sense – or at least a highly biographical take on their own lives and communities in the not so distant past. But an opera, even a long one, can’t absorb all seven hours of Kushner’s miraculous, wordy wonder, and like composers before him, Eötvös had to make some hard choices, which he did with Kushner’s assistance and that of librettist Mari Mezel. What's left is a peculiarly non-American take on the most American of plays with much of the political context stripped away. Some grumbling was to be expected with such a devoted audience, but the grumbling seemed fair even beyond the devotion of an audience for the original work. Angels in America in this instance is as disappointing as often as it isn’t.
The problem lies in Eötvös’s focus almost exclusively on the magical realism in the piece. He is enamored with the hallucinogenic, fantastical dream sequences of the play from Prior Walter’s wrestling with the Angel to Roy Cohn’s extended dialogues with Ethel Rosenberg. They are undoubtedly some of the strongest moments in the play, and they are well served with Eötvös modernist dark discordant score. Sadly though a single piece of theater, the work falters without a clear overarching framework. Understandably cuts have been made, but it feels like they have been made again and again in the wrong places. Scenes are kept for the beauty of their language or their profound sentiment, but necessary connecting narrative elements are too easily lost, creating confusion in the final act as to exactly how things got to the point they have. Worse yet, Eötvös’ monochromatic score cuts against the proceedings as often as it seems to drive the action forward. Angels in America turns out to be as didactic as an opera as it is a play. But while that works on stage, it fails overall in the concert hall.
Musically, the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their guests availed themselves of this score, which featured both acoustic and electric instruments as well as amplified voices, expertly. Pablo Heras-Casado served as the conductor as he will for the world premiere of Eötvös’ new Violin Concerto written for Midori this coming weekend. He kept things well coordinated and relatively fleet for such a wordy libretto. Measha Brueggergosman appeared as the angel and gave a lusty, visceral performance as a supernatural creature in a sea of human neurosis and pain. David Adam Moore’s Prior Walter was the center of the large eight-person cast and handled singing about erections when it was called for with a believable ease. There’s as much spoken dialogue in the show as sung text and the cast included many other fine vocalists such as Julia Migenes and Janice Hall. All of the eight vocal actors on stage were joined by three other vocalists: Jamie Jordan, Abigail Fischer, and everyone’s favorite local barihunk Abdiel Gonzalez who provided layering and augmentation to the individual sung lines throughout in a sort of mini mirror chorus. It was one of Eötvös’ most clever and resounding musical effects in an evening that often provided drama and more than a little magic. Even if it did so at the expense of delivering a unified dramatic whole.
Well in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s been awhile since I’ve been able to update Out West Arts. I’ve gotten some notes of concern from long-time readers over the last few weeks and just wanted to assure everyone that I’m not dead and am very much alive and likely in a theater or concert hall near you. Unfortunately, as many of you know OWA is entirely a labor of love for me and occasionally a few other participants around Los Angeles, but it has always been subject to the forces of my own life in the off line world. I’ve never talked much about that here and don’t intend to start now, but suffice it to say that family responsibilities have put added pressure on my time over the last two months and writing OWA has not made it onto the agenda for awhile. The hiatus won’t last forever, though. I’ve seen great stuff like Glass’ Einstein on the Beach and Joyce DiDonato’s kick-ass Carnegie Hall recital in support of her new recording Drama Queens. And I’ve seen garbage too, like much of the current Los Angeles Philharmonic Season so far. (If Salonen’s performance of Wozzeck with the Philharmonia Orchestra on their recent Los Angeles visit didn’t bring tears to your eyes for the lost past, you should have heard the Mahler 9 they did together.) But fear not, I’ll be back to spew more in the not too distant future. So, stay strong sports fans and by all means if you see me in public, stop by and say hi.